There is a lot of popular press telling you that exercise will not help you lose weight… in fact, you may *gasp* gain weight. The main study sparking this off back in the early 2000s if I recall correctly, got two groups of women and put them on treadmills. One group completed ‘high intensity’ and one group ‘moderate intensity’ exercise, then they were all given a free-for-all buffet, and they all replaced 90% of the calories that they burned leaving the researchers to conclude you will eat all the calories you complete in exercise and ergo – exercise doesn’t lose weight. This was followed by a slew of anecdotal (and possibly some empirical) evidence that people starting an exercise plan do not lose weight. I’ll give some criticisms of these conclusions, but as I do believe there are valid lessons to learn, give some tips of how to exercise and still maintain fat loss.
So, in the experiment above (which I think is a useful pice of scientific evidence) I have two main problems.
1. From a psychological point of view: The lack of ecological validity. This was not people ‘planning’ to conduct exercise for fat loss, it was thrust upon them. If someone said to me ‘I have forced you to burn 500 extra calories’, well, I too might think ‘OK then, I can eat 500, no problems!’. Also, the buffet situation. This does mirror some aspects of ‘real’ life, especially with all the talk of our food cornucopia and obesogenic society. BUT, an unexpected buffet, provided by someone else, as a one-off, is quite different to your home pantry, even if you do have a million restaurants down the road. Even an expected buffet leads me to eat quite differently than when I am at home.
2. From a physiological point of view: there are other, beneficial, metabolic changes related to exercise, which may aid fat loss. These may include, but are not limited to: increased insulin sensitivity, changes in leptin and grehlin, increase in metabolic rate (although this has been over reported), increase in muscle mass.
Note that I keep talking about ‘fat loss’ not weight loss, because I want to step outside of worrying if the scales don’t budge because you are getting bigger muscles, or you are increasing the glycogen they hold, or you have some mild inflammation resulting from the exercise, which may also increase water storage. So, what can we do about it? Here are a few tips:
1. Watch what you eat! Keep a food diary and make sure you are not having larger portions. There is plenty of good advice out there (check out Runner’s World) about how much extra food (if any) you need for different types, and different intensities of exercise.
2. Think about your food timing. The pre- and post- exercise windows are good eating times (30 mins and 1 hour respectively). To both fuel your exercise and to then restore and repair, when your body is most receptive to food and likely to use it for these functions, not convert it to fat. Think about shifting your meal times to work with this, rather than eating extra.
3.Weight lift. Add some strength training as your form of exercise. There is evidence that this will help prevent muscle loss AND aid fat loss.
4. Make sure your exercise hurts. Yup. Bodies quickly adapt to exercise, and evidence is mounting that it is the intensity of exercise that really helps fat loss and post-exercise burn. So, if you are lifting weights, make sure that final rep is really hard. If you are running: make sure you are out of breath by the end. Set a goal and whether that means you go further or faster or for longer, make sure it is hard to complete your goal (I advise a mix of all types of goals). A light jog for 20 mins a day may well have some beneficial effects on your psychology and physiology, and if it is all you can bring yourself to do: go for it! But if you can, make the exercise hard, make it hurt, and make it suck. You should see a steady improvement in your ability, and if not, question if you are pushing yourself enough.
5. Related to 4, but so important it deserves its own point: try HIIT. There are many protocols out there for any type of exercise. Evidence is really mounting that this is the best for fat loss and after exercise burn. I quite like it actually, so give it a try.
Good luck to y’all.
Sorry for the long wall of text and lack of pictures, I am in a rush as I am off for a leisurely bike and hike. Tomorrow the real exercise resumes 🙂